Eve Of Destruction
By Karen Armstrong
15 February, 2004
reeling from last year's virulent dispute about the foiled appointment
of its first gay bishop, the Anglican community is now faced with another
potentially irreversible split. Forward in Faith, a group opposed to
women priests, has proposed the idea of a province separate from but
parallel to Canterbury and York, with its own exclusively male hierarchy.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has apparently hinted
that he would be prepared to consider this suggestion, designed to prevent
a mass exodus from the church when women are consecrated as bishops.
More liberal Anglicans condemn the plan as a form of sexual apartheid,
even though Forward in Faith has 4,000 women members. Nevertheless,
the new province would represent a male bastion in a world in which
women are increasingly entering spheres that were formerly the preserve
of men. The fantasy of an all-male enclave is not new in the history
of religion. In the ancient world, women often served alongside men
as priests. This did not affect their inferior social status, but they
were regarded as worthy representatives of the divine. That changed
during the axial age, from circa 800BCE to 200BCE, when all the world
faiths that have continued to nourish humanity came into being at roughly
the same time.
These axial religions
hold many values in common, but they all share a fateful flaw. Wherever
an axial faith took root, the position of women underwent a downward
turn. Most of these religions had an egalitarian ethos, but they were
and have remained essentially male spiritualities. Confucius, for example,
seemed entirely indifferent to women; Socrates was not a family man.
In India, the Jain and Buddhist orders were irenic forms of the ancient
Aryan military brotherhoods, and though nuns were permitted to join,
in a second-class capacity, many felt that the presence of women was
inappropriate. Even the Buddha, who did not usually succumb to this
type of prejudice, declared that women would fall upon his order like
mildew on a field of rice.
Such misogyny damages
the integrity of faiths that insist that male and female are both created
in God's image and that all human beings are capable of attaining nirvana,
knowledge of Brahman or the Tao. Yeshivas, madrasahs, seminaries, monastic
orders and colleges of cardinals are all-male clubs that rigorously
exclude women. This chauvinism infects the spirituality of the faithful,
male and female alike. Male Jews are supposed to thank God daily for
not creating them women; every Christmas, Christians sing "Lo!
He abhors not the Virgin's womb", as though Jesus's tolerance of
the female body was an act of extraordinary condescension on his part.
Even when there
was an initial attempt to introduce greater sexual equality, men hijacked
the faith and dragged it back to the old patriarchy. This happened in
both Christianity and Islam, latter-day reassertions of axial age monotheism.
The Prophet Mohammed, for example, was anxious to emancipate women and
they were among his first converts. The Koran teaches that men and women
have exactly the same responsibilities and duties, and gives women rights
of inheritance and divorce that we would not enjoy in the west until
the 19th century. There is nothing in the Koran about the veiling of
all women or their confinement in harems. This practice came into Islam
some three or four generations after the Prophet, under the influence
of the Greek Christians of Byzantium, who had long covered and secluded
their women in this way.
Jesus would have
been surprised by the confinement of women. Both he and St Paul had
women disciples. They did not ordain them as priests, because there
was no Christian priesthood until the third century. The early Christians
espoused a revolutionary egalitarianism; a priestly hierarchy was too
reminiscent of Judaism and paganism, which they were beginning to leave
behind. Those who today condemn women's ordination as a break with tradition
should be aware that priesthood and episcopacy are themselves innovations
that depart from the practice of the primitive church.
The gospels give
women a good press: it is the women who stand by Jesus throughout the
crucifixion, while his male disciples are skulking in hiding, and it
is women who receive the first news of the resurrection and bring it
to the men. They were, it is often said, "apostles to the apostles".
St Paul proclaimed that in Christ there was neither male nor female.
Most of the misogynist passages attributed to Paul are taken from epistles
written decades after his death, when Christianity was beginning to
retreat from its early radicalism.
Once this had happened,
Christianity found issues of sex and gender more difficult than any
other faith. Some of the fathers of the church seemed totally unable
to deal with women, and attacked them in vicious, immoderate and, indeed,
unchristian language. Because they believed that celibacy was the prime
Christian vocation, they projected their own frustration on to women,
whom they castigated as evil temptresses. Tertullian told women to shroud
their bodies in veils and make themselves as unattractive as possible.
He blamed them for the sin of Eve: "You are the devil's gateway
... because of you the Son of God had to die!"
Many of the fathers
wanted to make the church a male enclave. St Augustine told his priests
to shun the company of women, even if they were sick or in trouble.
Even mothers were not safe: "It is still Eve the temptress that
we must beware of in every woman." The fathers' ideal woman was
a virgin, who had renounced her sexuality and thereby become an honorary
male. Some women, such as Joan of Arc or Catherine of Siena, exploited
this symbolism and used their virginity as an entrée into the
male spheres of war and politics, but in general virgins were supposed
to retreat from the world and leave it to men. They would eventually
be locked away in enclosed convents.
Later St Thomas
Aquinas saw women as biologically flawed, "defective and misbegotten",
and thus inherently inferior to the male sex, to whom it was their duty
to submit. Even Luther, who left his monastery to marry, believed that,
as a punishment for the sin of Eve, women must be driven from the world
of men and confined in the home "as a nail is driven into the wall".
Protestantism made Christianity more male than ever; by abolishing the
cults of the Virgin Mary and the women saints, it banished all female
imagery from the Christian consciousness.
Forward in Faith's
dream of an exclusively male preserve draws its strength from a Christian
tradition of denial, frustration and disgust that can by no stretch
of the imagination be regarded as spiritually wholesome. In all the
world faiths, women are trying to redress the pernicious chauvinism
that has tainted their traditions. We are now living in a world that
is perilously torn apart by religious extremism. We can no longer afford
faith that feeds in any way upon hatred, exclusion and disdain. Before
we condemn the bigotry of other traditions, we should try to heal the
prejudice that has damaged our own.
· Karen Armstrong
is the author of The Battle for God